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Omji never turned anyone away from his door, remembers wife Nandita Puri

On Om Puri's 70th birth anniversary today, Nandita launches the YouTube channel Puri Baatein and speaks about keeping his legacy alive.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Om Puri remains one of Hindi cinema's more versatile and gifted actors. His range can easily be gauged from the kind of roles he played in a film career that lasted almost four decades and saw him appear in more than 300 movies.

Every film fan has an unforgettable Om Puri role. He played the mute murder suspect in Govind Nihalani’s path-breaking film Aakrosh (1980), the oppressed, low-caste Dukhi in Satyajit Ray’s television film Sadgati (1981), conscientious police officer Anant Welankar, trapped by a corrupt system, in Ardh Satya (1983), the hilariously loud and corrupt builder Ahuja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), an aged but unbending gatekeeper Abu Mian in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987) and the bumbling aide Banwarilal in Chachi 420 (1997). Then there are his later roles in films like Hera Pheri (2000), Maqbool (2003), Dev (2004), Don (2006), Dabangg (2010) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and A Death In The Gunj (2017).

Om Puri also found success in international cinema, becoming one of the early crossover and more popular Indian artistes abroad. Among his memorable international films are Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Roland Joffe’s City Of Joy (1992), Merchant-Ivory’s In Custody (1994), Damien O'Donnell’s East Is East (1999), Udayan Prasad’s My Son The Fanatic (1997), Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) and Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014). He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990 and an OBE in 2004.

Today is the 70th birth anniversary of Om Puri and to mark the occasion, the Om Puri Foundation has drawn up a yearlong slate of events to celebrate the life, legacy and philosophy of the great actor.

Nandita Puri

The foundation was launched by Om Puri's wife, the author and journalist Nandita Puri, at the British Film Institute pavilion at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017. Speaking about the early work done by the foundation, Nandita said, “We started with the Om Puri Scholarship at the Film and Television Institute of India and the Om Puri Fellowship at the National School of Drama and the Om Puri Kisaan Scholarships and Om Puri Kaarigar Scholarships for children of farmers and artisans in the first two years.

“Omji never turned anyone away from his doorstep. He would help whoever came to him. He would always say don’t go big, just help people around you, and I think the empathy [for others] came from Omji. Before this, I never really understood the sufferings of a person less privileged.”

This year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country and in keeping with the late actor’s concern for the less fortunate, Nandita reached out to the dabbawalas (tiffin carriers) of Mumbai and provided monetary help to 200 dabbawala families. The foundation also provided assistance to 500 artisan families who were severely affected by the pandemic.

Besides, the foundation has pitched in to support efforts in rebuilding West Bengal after the devastating cyclone Amphan earlier this year. It also helped stranded students in Pune, providing them with food during the two-month lockdown that began in the last week of March.

“My intention is that if we are giving money, it needs to go to the person who needs it," Nandita said. "The idea is to help when people need it the most.” The foundation works with a close-knit team. “I think he will be very happy [with the work of the foundation]," she said. "He started working at a tea-stall to put money on the table for his family. Despite all that, he took all the hardships in his stride and learnt to live through them.”

Besides helping those in trouble, the foundation is planning to organize a retrospective of Om Puri's films in India and abroad. Nandita is also launching a YouTube channel, Puri Baatein, which will be about Om Puri’s films and the experiences of colleagues and directors who worked with him. The channel is being launched with a short film that his son, Ishaan Puri, made as a tribute to his father.

Speaking of Om Puri's films, Nandita said, “I have this huge poster of Omji and Rachel Griffiths of My Son The Fanatic, so every morning I wake up to see Omji.” Some of her favourite films from his ouevre are Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, My Son the Fanatic, China Gate (1998), East Is East and The Hundred-Foot Journey. “Aakrosh is one film that really haunts me, especially the last scene,” she said.